Chapter 8:

A/N: Episode 6... just... episode 6. OMG, no way, holy hell. I did not suspect Diane, and poor Bash, warping the character of a good man to take care of two of the only people in the world he cares for. I think I cheered and then felt torn up for his character in like 2 minutes flat. And then of course Francis... wha... he... gah. I really like both brothers, which sucks, because it makes it hard to choose a side, but Francis made it a little easier tonight.

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The horses slid their way down into the creek bed, noses aloft as they sank onto their haunches down the hill. Bash's knuckles were bone white as he gripped the pommel of his saddle in his left hand, and the cantle in his right, doing what he could to minimize the jarring to his injured side. Which, in the end, helped little at all.

Bash rode Shade straight in the middle of the rushing stream, the water surging up and around the horse's cannons. The stream was fast, but not overly deep, which meant it would do little to hamper their speed. "Come," he motioned Mary with his chin. The Queen quietly urged the balky gray mare onward, the mare snorting with each step as if indignant, but soon they were next to Bash. "We'll head this way," Bash pointed down the riverbed.

"But that's South," Mary said, her brow knitting in consternation. "The castle, and the King's Road lie north, upstream." Bash didn't quite manage to hide his surprise. He hadn't figured on Mary having such a keen sense of direction. "You seem perplexed," she said, lips puckering into an annoyed pout. "Shocking as it may be to you Bash, I can look overhead and see which way the sun travels across the sky. Which makes that South, and that North. It does not take a scholar, or a tracker, to know you would lead us away from home."

Tightness pulled at Bash's cheeks, but he refrained from an outright grin. "I apologize," he conceded, bowing his head. "I should remind myself more often that I should not underestimate Your Grace, a lesson that it seems, bears repeated teaching."

"So then why South?"

"Cenisold too, knows which way the castle lies. I'd wager he can track as well, a useful skill for a man in his occupation. He will expect us to make directly for the castle. He will have his men ride ahead, looking to block our way to the King's Road. So we go South instead, follow the river for a time, before turning for the coast and come at the castle across country from behind them."

His logic was hard to argue, so Mary nodded and turned Estee to face the same direction as Shade. "Well then, lead on, my intrepid wanderer." Bash managed a weak smile, then clucked to his gelding, who shifted into a ambling, and unfortunately still excruciating walk. They stayed to the middle of the stream bed, leaving no sign of their passing, and Bash kept his eyes peeled for somewhere they'd be able to conceal themselves. For he felt the warmth continue to flow beneath his hand, his life blood seeping between cracks in his fingers, weariness settling into his very bones. He had to find them someplace to stop, to rest, to hide Mary where she would be safe. He had to hold on long enough for that.

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Cenisold's thunderous, dark eyes carefully swept the ground in front of his horse's hooves. Every now and then a dark, thick droplet of blood stained a dead leaf or the low branch of a sapling, and his satisfaction grew. They could not hide from him, not for long. He was a hunter, a born predator who'd spent the better portion of his meager life perfecting those innate talents that made him who he was. The bastard born son of the King was strong, resilient, and resourceful, but he was no more than a pup that had yet to be whelped. That he would be the one to bring the boy to bear was all the more satisfying.

It was the fear really, that he craved. The sense of power he got as another human was cowed before him was exhilarating. His men feared him, but it was hardly enough. It wasn't the fear from the hunt, the fear of the unknown. All his men knew the stakes should they fail him. It was the girl. How much terror would he wreak within her once she saw her protector flayed open?

He rode alone through the trees, seeming in no particular hurry at all, his reins draped loosely on his horses neck as Cenisold stayed half bent over his saddle. He'd sent his men ahead, North, to the King's Road, to stop them should they get that far. Not that they would. Cenisold would see to that. He took it personally that they'd managed to get away, though the boy had spared him the trouble of killing the men that had allowed it. Cenisold's lip curled into an ugly sneer. That meant the King's eldest had cost him three men since his abduction, the two the previous evening, and the one that had attempted to lay his hands upon the Queen. He might have let that man live. He understood the wants and desires of men that lived in a way that denied them such comfort. And the Queen of Scots was a pretty thing indeed, dark hair against nubile, alabaster skin. But his man had been caught unaware by a bound, injured prisoner. It was clear to Cenisold that for such dereliction death was the only reprimand.

The trail led him up a small rise, and he leaned forward. Another splash of blood on dead, ochre leaves. There was no missing it now, the spot bigger than the heel of his palm and far brighter than the last. He was getting closer. His hand went absently to the sword strapped over his hip. He guided his horse over the rise and down the bank into the stream. He rode several yards both ways up the stream, but there was no sign of their crossing to the other side. Clever boy. Cenisold turned his horse Northward and sat for a moment. If they had gone that way he could drive them into the waiting arms of his men. But the young Sebastian was no fool. He would not ride into such an obvious trap. Cenisold turned his horse and headed South. Clever or no, it would not be enough to save him.

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The first rays of dawn had only just cracked the Eastern horizon when they found Francis marching swiftly through the halls to the bailey by the stables, the sharp click of his boot heels sending resounding echoes off the empty stone hall in waves. He had his head down, hands clasped tightly behind his back, his teeth worrying a hole into his lower lip. Too long, he thought. Even one single night in the hands of those men, or even alone in unfamiliar woods was too long for Mary to suffer. If anything happened to her, if anyone hurt her... He shook his head. She was with Bash. Bash would see them through, his brother had a knack for things like that.

"You're in quite the hurry," a rich, confident, voice said from behind his left shoulder. Startled, Francis jerked his head up and spun. Lola, her dark, curly tresses contained in a braid that wrapped around her head, lowered her chin and curtsied. "Apologies my Lord, if I startled you."

"You know why I hurry," he said shortly. He saw Lola's eyes widen slightly and he sighed, passing a hand over his face. "Now it is my turn to apologize."

"There is nothing to forgive, My Lord," Lola returned graciously. "You fear for Mary's safety, as do we all. I would expect no less than a sense of urgency from you."

Francis managed a weak smile and resumed walking, Lola falling in step beside him. I was only then she noticed the long riding cloak she wore, the simple lines of her dress, and the strong click of boot heels on stone. He found himself stopped once more, reaching out to grasp Lola's arm, gentle, but firm. "I have a mind to what it is that you consider," he said seriously, his lips pressing thin. "I would not allow it."

"With all respect," Lola's hand pressed gently over Francis'. "Given the option, if not for your father's decree, you would ride out this morning, would you not?"

"Of course," he answered immediately.

"But that option has been stripped from you. It has not been done so from me. Nor, may I remind you, am I one of your subjects. Mary is my Queen, and it is for her that I would do this. An emissary from her country should accompany the search, and since it seems your father has not deemed it necessary to tell Mary's uncle of the situation..." She let the thought linger, waited for Francis to argue, even though there was no argument to be made.

France's Dauphin did not appreciate being backed into a corner, but there was little he could say. It was true, his father had not informed the Duc de Guise of the situation. Still, he could hardly encourage Lola's endeavor. "It is too dangerous," Francis persisted.

Lola laughed then. "Crossing an ocean was dangerous. Life here at French court, is dangerous. Choices I've made, of love I've had, being a woman, is dangerous. Life is not without its perils, and I do not walk blindly into this. Mary is my friend, and Bash also. Allow me to do what you would otherwise, were your hands not bound."

Francis blew out a short breath, a disgruntled grumble accompanying it. But he could see the resolution in Lola's face, a quiet determination he would not easily sway. "The men will not be happy to have you along," he told her seriously.

"Well then, I count myself fortunate that you will be with me to make it a command and not a request," Lola smiled broadly.

"Stay close to the guards," Francis went on. "Keep a bow strung and easily at hand, just in case." He shook his head. "It pains me, that you would ride into danger while I sit around here like a useless fop."

Lola squeezed his hand once more. "It is the price of your station. No one will think less of you. Mary... will not think less of you." Francis appreciated the words, perhaps more than Lola could conceive. His resolve strengthened, they finished their walk to the bailey in silence.

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Time marched on, and the sun slid westward, the brightness of its rays deepening into orange hues as it slanted shadows around them. Mary guessed that it was early afternoon. Ahead of her, Sebastian kept Shade marching stalwartly onward through the stream. She kept her eyes trained in the center of Bash's back, her concern for him growing by the minute. He'd grown quiet over the past few hours, his generally affable and gregarious personality muted. It worried her. Finally, she could hold her tongue no longer.

"We need to stop," she announced. "You have to rest, and we need to remove that arrow."

Bash craned his neck to look at her, blinking slowly. His eyes, already startlingly blue, were almost eerily iridescent against the paleness of his skin. "Soon," he assured, taking care to enunciate the word. "Once we find someplace safe to hide. Your mare is like a beacon in this place. I did not consider her suitability for forest camouflage when I chose her for you." He turned away, eyes carefully scanning the land again.

"When you chose?" Mary questioned from just behind him, surprised. "I thought Francis..."

Bash grimaced, glad Mary couldn't see it. His injury was making him loose with his tongue, not a quality he could afford. "He did," Bash said quickly, trying to climb out from the hole in which he'd so squarely stepped. "Francis knows the horses are a hobby of mine. He asked me to choose a few horses which would be suitable for you, but he chose Estee from the lot." A lie. Francis had asked for help choosing a mount for Mary, but Bash had not given him options. Estee was the horse for Mary, he'd known it surely.

"Oh," Mary said, apparently satisfied with the explanation.

The stream banked right, and the sound of rushing water intensified. As they rounded the corner they could see where the stream flowed into a larger river, water creating white foaming peaks against rocks. The waterway was at least 25 feet across, and flowing swiftly. Clucking with his tongue, Bash urged Shade up the embankment and out of the wash. Mary followed just behind. "We can't cross here," Bash explained. "We'll have to go farther downriver."

No more than a quarter of a mile farther on, the land dipped away in a steep hill. Beside them, water coursed over the edge of a falls, cascading like a pane of glass until it crashed into the ground below, sending a cloudy spray 15 feet in the air. They picked their way down the face, the horses walking mincingly over the steep terrain. The riverbed widened at the base of the falls, creating a wide, shallow pool of tumultuously mixing currents, until it narrowed farther on.

"Whoa," Bash murmured to Shade, pulling the big gelding up. Gritting his teeth, he swung a leg over the cantle of his saddle and dropped heavily to the ground. He could feel the arrow move in his side, stretching and tearing at his flesh and he gasped, nearly collapsing to his knees.

"Bash!" Mary was at his side before he even realized she had stopped, stooping to place her shoulder beneath his good arm, her right hand pressed against his chest.

Bash forced himself to take a deep breath, willing the fogginess in his head to clear. "There," he motioned with his chin toward the falls.

Confused, Mary peered at the water. "I don't understand."

"Trust me," he said, stepping out into the shallows, Mary supporting some of his weight. To her surprise, she realized that she did, implicitly, completely trust him. She couldn't pinpoint the moment it had happened. Perhaps it had been during the disaster with Colin, or his unflagging aid even through injury with Tomas, or maybe it had happened more recently, out in the woods, but it had. As far as anyone in French court, it was Bash whose motivations she did not question, Bash on whom she knew without a doubt she could rely. A flutter of butterfly wings in her chest made her skin tingle.

They pressed close to the cliff wall, the rock slick with moisture. The mist cloud floated up into Mary's nose and eyes, making it hard to see, and making her want to sneeze. The roar of the falls drowned out all else, and they did not speak anymore as they walked. Then Mary saw what Bash had seen. Behind the watery veil of the falls was a dark depression, a cave, one that, upon inspection, was large enough for both horses as well as them. Huffing slightly from the exertion, Bash managed to flash her a smile, blinking droplets of water from his eyelashes. A sheet of water soaked them both as they passed beneath the falls and into the cave. The light inside was murky and uneven, moving like a living thing against the walls.

Mary helped lower Bash onto a large rock. She leaned close to him, her lips brushing by her ear so he could hear. "I'll go get the horses," she told him. Instantly, a protective hand found her arm. She smiled softly at him, her hand briefly cupping his cheek in a moment of reassurance, before she stepped through the curtain of water once more.

By the time Mary convinced both horses to step through the waterfall, she was convinced she had never, at any point in her life, been more wet. Her hair was plastered to her head and her dress felt like it weighed a half ton. She led the horses to the back of the cave and left them. "This is as good a hiding place as we could have found." She said it mostly to convince herself, to help quell the hammering of her heart that had been ongoing for most of the day.

"Agreed. I don't... don't think... he'll find you," Bash's voice was quiet and Mary was beside him quickly.

"Bash!" she exclaimed softly, her heart hammering once more. He looked at her through unfocused eyes. She pried his hand from his side, an easier endeavor now than it had been several hours before. "Us," she murmured soothingly, needing to hear the words as much as Bash. "He won't find us."

So much blood. Her fingers hovered over the top of the arrowhead, indecision coloring her every movement. She knew she had to remove the arrow, but how? "You need to talk to me Bash," she told him. "You need to tell me what to do."

"You need to remove the arrow," Bash said, voice hoarse. "And then staunch the blood."

"Yes, but I have nothing to cauterize the wound."

The eldest son of the King lifted a shaky hand, pointing toward Shade. "My saddle bags," he said. Mary nodded, standing even as she whirled for the horses. Digging around in the bags however, she found nothing but Bash's worn, leather wineskin and some stale biscuits. Suddenly frustrated, she wheeled on him, thrusting the skin before her like an accusation. "This? I hardly think this is the time for wine."

Bash startled to chuckle, but it turned into a pained, raspy cough. "No. Though I should very much like a drink at the moment, that is not its purpose. Come." Still doubtful, Mary approached him slowly, the skin dangling loosely from her fingers. She knelt beside him, waiting.

"There is a battlefield surgeon my father sometimes employs at court," Bash began. "His name is Ambroise Pare. He is... unconventional. He has written journals on his medical theories, unpopular with most. But he writes, that when cauterization is not an option, a wound should be washed in a tincture, usually egg and turpentine, but he has used alcohol as well. He says it aids to hinder infection. You must break the arrow at its head, and pull it out. Then, drench the wound with my wine and bind it as best you can."

Mary looked at the wineskin she held with wonder. "You are a scholar."

Bash's mouth quirked. "Did you think me only a brigand of unsuspecting women?"

"I should remind myself more often not to underestimate you," she echoed his words from earlier that day. "It is a lesson that seems to bear repeating. And no, not a brigand. Careless with your affections perhaps, but no less than a paragon of bravery."

"I will happily accept that assessment of my character, whatever its flaws. Are you ready?" Mary nodded, worrying her lower lip beneath her teeth. Bash nodded to her, and she gripped the fletching of the arrow in one hand, bracing the shaft nearest his side with the other. She pressed down on the blood soaked feathers as hard as she was able, the wooden shaft flexing beneath her fingers. Bash's eyes flew wide, his features standing in sharp bloodless relief on his face. After what seemed an eternity, she heard the wood begin to splinter. Then it snapped. Her eyes flew to Bash's. Eery blue eyes fixed upon hers. "Do it."

Queasiness threatened to overwhelm her, but Mary's constitution was iron. She grasped the arrow head in her left hand and pulled. Beneath her grip, Bash writhed, his fingers rutting furrows on his palms, his teeth clamped down as he suppressed a scream. There was a wet, sucking noise as the arrow slid free, and Mary dropped it as though it were poison. Quickly, she unstoppered the wineskin and dumped most of its contents over the newly opened wound, the deep ruby wine mixing with the bright red wash of new blood. Bash groaned anew, muscles cording in his neck. He was barely conscious as she used his dagger to cut long strips from the skirt of her gown, using the fabric to stuff and bind the wound.

By the time she finished with the bandages, Mary looked like she had dressed in red opera gloves. "it is the best I can do, for the moment," she informed him as she inspected her work. It took her a moment to register that Bash did not reply. His eyes were shut, his chin lolling upon his chest. But his breaths came steady and slow. Mary sighed and eased Bash from his perch upon the rock, til he was lying flat upon his back, his head cradled in her lap. And there, on the damp floor of a cave, she prayed, not for safety or rescue, but for him. Whatever it might mean, she needed him to be all right.

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Chapter 8

Sorry this took so long I was on vacation in the middle of nowhere! Hopefully this is long enough to satisfy the wait. Please let me know what you think!